Margot Dorfman

(WOMENSENEWS)–For 15 years, Pam Adams has been trying to get a federal contract for Indusys Technology, Inc., a San Jose, Calif.-based, women-owned-and-operated technology services provider.

And for 15 years, Adams, who is Indusys’ program manager charged with going after these contracts, has been running into hurdles of federal procurement laws and policies.

A big part of the problem, Adams said, is women are at the bottom of the pecking order when it comes to federal contracts. There are lots of promises, but no guarantees to uphold them.

The U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce is trying to corral frustrations like those of Adams’ and other women business owners across the country and make them heard at the voting booths Tuesday.

“Both the Democrats and the Republicans want our vote,” said Margot Dorfman, the chief executive of the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce.

Dorfman, says however, the Bush admistration has embellished on what it has done for women small business owners to get their vote. She wants women to know the truth, so they can vote accordingly.

Calling for More Government Contracts

The Chamber and the National Women’s Lobby are calling upon Congress and the U.S. Small Business Administration to quickly implement P.L. 106-554, the Women’s Procurement Program, which was signed into law in December 2000. “Better access to federal contacts is one of the chief concerns of our membership,” says Dorfman.

Under the law, women-owned businesses are supposed to receive 5 percent of all government contracts.

Privately held women-owned businesses make up 30 percent of all U.S. business. While the federal government spent a record-setting $8.3 billion–up from $6.8 billion in 2002–with women-owned small businesses in fiscal year 2003, women received only 3 percent of contract dollars. “Shouldn’t that number be closer to 30 percent?” asked Dorfman. “We want to see an increase.”

With the total still short of the 5 percent goal, the shortfall for women-owned businesses is valued at $5.6 billion in fiscal 2003, she added.

In its call to action, the women’s chamber says the fact that the legislation has never been implemented is “an unconscionable lack of support for women-owned businesses.” It is thus asking women to use its online advocacy system to contact congressional leaders and to make clear to these leaders that women’s votes are contingent upon support for policies and implementation of laws that support female business owners.

“The law was passed but it was never implemented or funded,” said Dorfman. “If the administration wanted to make this happen, it could.”

Indeed, Congress did pass the law back in December 2000 and charged the Small Business Administration with implementing it. Craig Orfield, the communications director for the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship explains that the 5 percent is a “goal,” and it is really up to the federal agency for small businesses how that goal is achieved.

Through its “respect our vote campaign” the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce is urging women to cast their vote for presidential and congressional candidates who will support female small business owners. And, with candidates heavily courting the female vote this year, Dorfman is hoping, women’s attention to the issue may get some results.

The John Kerry campaign has also been critical of the Bush administration’s support for female business owners.

“While George Bush has failed women-owned business on a variety of issues including missing the government contracting goals for women-owned businesses, John Kerry will work hard to reduce the cost of health care for small businesses and ensure that we live up to our commitment in meeting contracting goals for women-owned businesses,” said Devona Dolliole, a Kerry-Edwards spokesperson.

The Bush campaign did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Women are Key Constituency

Female business owners have been heavily courted throughout the presidential campaign by both the Bush and Kerry camps. Women are 55 percent of registered voters and 60 percent of the electorate; they also are considered to represent a sizable portion of the swing vote, making their decisions late in the election cycle. Female business owners are particularly attractive to the candidates because they vote more, earn more and cross party lines more than other women.

After 15 years of fighting for contracts, Adams doesn’t expect change to come fast, but she optimistic about efforts like the chamber’s.

“It is going to be a long haul,” she said. “It is going to take a lot of voices, speaking very loudly at the same time.”

As for the Small Business Administration, the delay is an unfortunate part of the legislative process. Before implementing the law, the SBA sent it to the National Academy of Sciences for a review of the women’s contracting goals. This study was to be used as a basis to improve the numbers.

“The study has taken longer than expected,” said Evan Keefer, the spokesperson for the Small Business Administration. In the meantime, he said, the eligibility requirements of the 8(a) Business Development program have been expanded to make women eligible. This program was created to help small disadvantaged businesses compete in the American economy and access the federal procurement market. Through the program, the Small Business Administration offers support for government contractors, access to capital, management and technical assistance, and export assistance, among other services.

“There is still more work to be done,” said Keefer, “but the Bush administration has done a lot to make sure women-owned businesses get their fair share of the contracting dollars.”

Missing Will

Dorfman says she doesn’t buy the Small Business Administration’s excuse. She points to a new procurement program announced in May that will boost federal contract opportunities for service-disabled veteran-owned small businesses. The interim rule, requiring that 3 percent of federal contracts go to this group, was made effective immediately. The Federal Acquisition Regulatory Council concurrently released regulations implementing the program.

Then on Oct. 20, President Bush issued an executive order designed to further strengthen and increase federal contracting opportunities for small businesses owned by service-disabled vets. The order requires heads of agencies to provide significantly more contracting and subcontracting opportunities than the currently required 3 percent to service-disabled veteran-owned small businesses.

Marianne Sullivan is a Boston-based freelance writer who writes frequently on economics and finance.

For more information:

U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce:

U.S. Small Business Administration: